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Passenger Travel Between the United States and Canada and Mexico

Passenger Travel Between the United States and Canada and Mexico

In 1999, approximately 300 million visits (or roundtrips) were recorded between the United States and Mexico and the United States and Canada, an increase of just over 5 percent from the 285 million North American resident cross-border visits made in 1990 (box 2). About 80 percent of all travel back and forth across the borders is done on same-day trips, with the remaining 20 percent of trips involving an overnight stay. The vast majority of people travel by personal vehicle, with walking, airplane, and bus the other primary modes of transportation (table 8 and table 9).

Same-Day Travel

Same-day excursions dominate travel between the United States and its two neighbors, accounting for about 87 percent of total travel between the United States and Mexico and about 66 percent of total travel between the United States and Canada (based on 1999 data, the most recent year for which comprehensive figures are available).

Canadians cite pleasure as the most common reason for same-day travel to the United States, accounting for 53 percent in 1999 (table 10). About 7 percent cited business as their main reason to travel, while another 11 percent came to visit friends and relatives. Trip purpose shares for U.S. residents traveling to Canada are very similar. Comparable data on the Mexican border are not available.

Same-day travel between Canada and the United States declined dramatically between 1990 and 1999, dropping from 76 million to 58 million visits. The decline is partly a result of the unfavorable exchange rate for the Canadian dollar (figure 7). All trip purposes were affected, but the decline was most pronounced for pleasure and business trips. Motor vehicle travel shows the greatest drop, while air travel by Canadians increased over this period.

In contrast to the U.S.-Canadian situation, same-day travel between the United States and Mexico increased markedly, by approximately 19 percent from 1990 to 1999. This trend was balanced between the two countries residents as same-day travel in both directions increased at comparable rates; the number of same-day trips made by Americans to Mexico jumped by 21 percent between 1990 and 1999, while the number of Mexican same-day trips to the United States climbed by 17 percent during this period. The rate of growth for same-day travel between the United States and Mexico was especially rapid toward the close of the decade. Buoyed by strong economic growth in both countries, total same-day trips between the two nations leapt by nearly 13 percent from 1996 to 1999 alone.

Data show that the vast majority of same-day travelers cross the border in personal vehicles, especially along the Mexican border, which accounts for almost three-quarters of the passenger movement across the U.S. border by land. Border-crossing data also show that 290 million people entered the United States from Mexico in 2000 (table 11), approximately 800,000 a day, up from about 750,000 a day in 1998.16 About 16 percent of the people entered the United States from Mexico on foot, while most of the rest came in personal vehicles. Approximately 250,000 personal vehicles cross into the United States everyday from Mexico, with the largest share by far entering El Paso, Texas, and San Ysidro, California (table 12 and see also box 3). San Ysidro also handles about 300 buses each day.

Similar border-crossing data show that the number of people coming into the United States from Canada by land is about one-third of the number entering from Mexico, about 96 million in 2000, or 260,000 a day on average.17 Most of these enter in personal vehiclesabout 100,000 a day on the Canadian border. Detroit and Buffalo-Niagara handle the heaviest traffic, half the amount of the most active crossing points on the Mexican border (table 13). The crossing points in the Buffalo-Niagara area also handle about 180 buses each day on average.

Overnight Travel

About half of international overnight travel (travel spanning more than one day) involving the United States is to and from Canada and Mexico. In 2000, a record 51 million international overnight trips were made to the United States, 29 percent from Canada and another 20 percent from Mexico (table 14). U.S. residents made 61 million overnight trips in 2000, with Mexico, their top destination, accounting for a third of these trips (table 15). For Americans, Canada was the second most visited overnight destination with 25 percent of total trips.

Overnight travel between the United States and other countries increased 33 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 84 million to 112 million (figure 8 and figure 9). Reflecting the increasing globalization of the economy and lower airfares, travel between the United States and countries overseas grew much faster than with our North American neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Overnight trips to and from overseas countries increased 71 percent between 1990 and 2000, compared with only 11 percent between the United States and Canada and Mexico.

In contrast to same-day trips, total overnight traffic between the United States and Canada and between the United States and Mexico is roughly comparable. The direction of overnight travel between the countries is very different, however, resulting, in large measure, from the much wider disparity in income between residents of the United States and Mexico than exists between the United States and Canada. In 2000, Americans took only 1 million more overnight trips to Canada than Canadians did to the United States.18 However, Americans took nearly 9 million more overnight trips to Mexico than Mexicans took to the United States. This is despite the fact that the population of Canada is about 30 million compared with 100 million Mexicans and 280 million Americans.

As with same-day travel, ground transportation, particularly the use of personal vehicles, is still the primary mode for North American overnight travel. Air, however, is relied on more heavily for overnight trips than it is for same-day trips. Table 8 and table 9 illustrate air travels increasing modal share of all internationpageal North American trips from 1990 to 1999, with the single exception of Mexican travel to the United States.19 About 65 percent of overnight trips between the United States and Canada were made by land modes (the vast majority in personal vehicles) in 1999, down from 74 percent in 1990. In 1999, approximately 74 percent of overnight trips between the United States and Mexico were made by land modes, down from about 80 percent in 1990.

During the 1990s, travel survey data show air travel growing from 22 percent to about 30 percent of overnight trips between the United States and Canada, and from 20 percent to 26 percent for such trips between the United States and Mexico. Carrier data also show the importance of air travel between the North American countries. In 2000, Canada-U.S. passenger traffic accounted for 18.2 million trips, while U.S.-Mexico traffic reached 16.3 million trips.20 The top three North American air passenger city pairs are Toronto-New York, Toronto-Chicago, and Los Angeles-Mexico City.

Passenger Travel and the Balance of Payments

International passenger travel generates much revenue for transportation carriers, hotels, restaurants, and other travel-related businesses. The United States had a 7 percent share of all international overnight visitors in 2000 and a 17 percent share of worldwide international overnight visitor receipts.21 Expenditures by international visitors amounted to $82 billion in 2000, nearly $18 billion more than U.S. residents paid on international trips22 (table 16). Passenger fares paid by international travelers to U.S. transportation providers brought in another $21 billion, but this was $3.4 billion less than what U.S. residents paid to transportation service providers in other countries.23 Although Canada and Mexico are the most heavily traveled countries for U.S. residents, U.S. residents had the largest total travel and passenger fare expenditures for visits to the United Kingdom. In 2000, residents of Japan and the United Kingdom spent more than other international travelers to the United States, followed by Canada and Mexico.

Receipts from Canadians traveling to the United States declined by 21 percent (in inflation-adjusted terms) between 1990 and 2000, and receipts from Mexican travelers declined by 24 percent over this period (figure 10 and figure 11). With growth in the payments to businesses in Canada (42 percent) and Mexico (8 percent) during this time, the travel balance of payments with Canada shrank dramatically and went from positive to negative with Mexico. Passenger fare receipts and payments increased with both Canada and Mexico. However, the U.S. trade balance on passenger fares with Mexico fluctuated to a greater extent between 1990 and 2000. Thus, the U.S. trade balance with both countries for passenger fares improved and then deteriorated over the period, ending in 2000 near to where it began in 1990.

End Notes

16 U.S. Customs personnel collect border-crossing/entry data for all U.S. land, air, and maritime ports. These numbers reflect all entries, and it is not possible to divide these data into separate entries for same-day and overnight travel or by country of residence for the traveler. Additionally, please note that, for border-crossing figures, the total number of people is not the number of unique individuals, but rather indicates the number of border crossings. Multiple crossings by the same individual would count as multiple border crossings. Such is not the case for same-day and overnight travel data (collected by other U.S. government, Canadian, and Mexican agencies), which are always referred to as visits or trips.

17 See box 2 on page 17 for a discussion of data sources.

18 Data for overnight trips by Americans to Canada and Canadians to the United States are from U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, Office of Tourism Industries, U.S. Resident Travel to Canada, Mexico and Overseas Countries, Historical Visitation Outbound: 1990-2000, available at, as of August 2001.

19 Statistics Canada, International Travel, Travel Between Canada and Other Countries (Touriscope), Catalogue No. 66-201-XPB (Ottawa, Ontario: Various years); and Statistics Canada, special tabulations, 1998.

20 U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Office of Airline Information, Segment T-100 data track nonstop commercial traffic traveling between international points and U.S. airports. Segment T-100 data include both scheduled and chartered flights (aircraft with 60 seats or more). Therefore, passenger volume in particular markets, such as certain U.S.-Canada markets, is understated.

21 U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, Office of Tourism Industries, personal communication, July 2001.

22 Travel expenditures include goods and services (e.g., food, lodging, recreation, gifts, entertainment, and local transportation) purchased when visiting a foreign country. A traveler is a person who visits a country for less than one year, except diplomats and military and civilian government personnel. Educational and medical expenditures are not included. Expenditures on same-day trips by Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans are included.

23 International passenger fares refer to fares paid by residents of one country to airline and vessel operators in another country on trips to or from the two countries involved.

Updated: Saturday, May 20, 2017